The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Here are some real emergencies. None of them requires the president to turn into a dictator.

Protesters gather outside the White House in Washington in 2017 to protest President Trump's decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate change accord.
Protesters gather outside the White House in Washington in 2017 to protest President Trump's decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate change accord. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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AS CRISES go, the situation along the southern border is certainly a logistical, humanitarian and managerial challenge. Its urgency is accentuated by laws and infrastructure ill-suited to the current flood of families seeking asylum in the United States. But it is not a national emergency, as President Trump has framed it, any more than numerous other challenges we can think of.

The Border Patrol’s average monthly arrests of undocumented immigrants have plummeted by nearly two-thirds from the administration of President George W. Bush to that of Mr. Trump. There is no evidence that terrorists have crossed the frontier illegally from Mexico, as Mr. Trump likes to say. And a wall of the sort the president covets would do little to deter drugs or criminals, most of which enter the country through legal crossing points.

As a legal matter, it’s unclear whether Mr. Trump has the authority to declare an official emergency as a means of diverting funds that would enable the military to build the wall; certainly, he would be challenged in court if he tried it. What is clear is that, as a policy matter, many crises are equally or more deserving of the attention, money and resolve Mr. Trump has focused on the wall.

Start with the opioid addiction epidemic, which the president did designate a national health emergency in the fall of 2017. Unfortunately, there has been limited follow-up from him or his administration since then. Even with more than 70,000 people dying in 2017 from drug overdoses, federal spending remains at levels far short of what experts say is required to fight addiction effectively.

What about fatal motor vehicle crashes, which, despite impressive progress in recent decades, claimed the lives of more than 37,000 people in 2017? That’s more than 100 deaths on average each day — more than twice the rate at which U.S. soldiers were killed during the Vietnam War’s bloodiest year, 1968. A similar number of people died in the United States as a result of firearms in 2016, about two-thirds of them involving suicide. Any other Western democracy would regard that as a bona fide emergency; Mr. Trump barely mentions it.

An excellent case could be made for declaring an emergency over Russian meddling in U.S. elections, the scale and scope of which is only gradually becoming clear. Climate change is a full-blown emergency whose threat to lives and property is poised to rise exponentially.

The right response to all these emergencies would be for Congress and the president together to shape policy responses — not to deny their existence, as Mr. Trump does with climate change, or use them for political gain, as he does with the border. The one emergency Mr. Trump fears is the threat he faces from his own base should it conclude his border-wall promise was a hoax. Thus has the president perverted the public debate and diverted the United States’ gaze from authentic dangers.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: The real national emergency is the threat of Trump’s collapse

Michael Gerson: Trump’s wall is a monument to vanity and bigotry

Henry Olsen: Trump won’t lose in a long shutdown

Jennifer Rubin: An ‘emergency’ power grab would only add to Trump’s problems

Erik Wemple: Who wants to broadcast Trump’s border ‘crisis’ speech?